In the last of his three part exploration of gangster rap, #itchysilk writer Malik Crumpler delves further into the wormhole that is gangsta rap and brings us up to the times with names like, Cardi B. Indeed as she rises through the ranks to rap royalty we have to ask ourself many questions and reach perhaps uneasy truths. In the current climate the reality is simple. Rappers who spout more conscious lyrics evidently face a huge battle when corporate America has co-signed gangster rappers whose messages are in opposition with their ‘conscious’ wishes.
So, what was it exactly that made kids like me in the 80’s flock to Gangster Rap more so than any other form of rap music? What makes it easier for N.W.A., 2 Pac, Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z, Lil’ Kim, Nikki Minaj and Cardi B to fascinate kids more than Common, Black Thought, Will Smith, Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, Sistah Souljah, Yo Yo, Lauryn Hill, Sa-Roc or MC Hammer? Bottom line, what made the imagery and narrative of the black male as an uncontrollable criminal aka Malcolm Little more entertaining than the saintly black male image of El Haj Malik El Shabazz? Or the hyper sexualized street woman Lil’ Kim more popular than, Amy Garvey. Or better yet, what made Gangster Rap or rather, crack rap more profitable- entertainment wise, than any other form of rap? In other words, how the hell did we get from Beat Street (1984) to Menace II Society (1993)?
It’s a fact that if we as an audience had not supported such lyrical content…the majors would have never been drawn to pay attention to its financial viability
The simplest answer is the ancient history of sex, violence and scandal as basic tools for selling any form of theatrical entertainment. In those ancient dramas, the heroine or hero is usually celebrated for their victory over other harmful characters, even if those characters are within themselves. So then, why did we as a nation of consumers decide to financially celebrate the villains? Why did we praise the narrative of the dope man over the narrative of law abiding citizens?
A friend of mine and fellow rapper once argued-“Wasn’t no dope raps comin’ from them upper class farmers or physicist. The closest thing we got to a fuckin’ Doctor in rap music was Dr. Dre, and we all know what his cheap ass prescription was. And we all know what was at the root of his philosophy bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks…”
For years I’ve wondered was it just our youthful naivety that kept us singing along to and memorizing demeaning lyrics towards ourselves and women? Was it our unconscious fascination with crafty rappers who confessed their violent battles with post-colonializations internalized ‘isms as programmed in them by the patriarchal white supremacists, rape culture enthusiasts and the ruthless abuse of authority experienced under the war on drugs regime?
If the guardian angels of the core values of rap were/are names like; Public Enemy, Yo Yo, Poor Righteous Teachers, Lady Of Rage, Monie Love, KRS One, Queen Latifah then why is it that KRS One, Public Enemy and Queen Latifah are the only ones still active in pop culture today?
Whether you believe Gangster Rap glamorized violence or not, it goes without argument that it degrades women like no other popular music before or since. It’s a fact that if we as an audience had not supported such lyrical content in the underground first, the majors would have never been drawn to pay attention to its financial viability.
Was East Coast rap too predictable and didn’t reflect the reality of the rest of day to day struggles? Or had the 5%’s agenda failed to mesmerize the rest of the country? Had all those transcendental, dance anthems and super hero-esque tales left us instinctively craving the vulgar, brutally aggressive narratives of Gangster rap for if nothing else, balance?
Isn’t it a bit suspicious that just as rappers like Rakim attempted to direct his predominately East Coast crowd deeper into their spiritual and political selves, the West Coast rappers (financed by Californian drug lords and other gangsters) revoked the East Coast’s leadership? In turn they lead with alpha-male themes like; Endangered Species (1990), Bush Killa (1992), Hood Took Me Under (1992), Dig It (1993), Niggaz 4 Life (1991), Gangsta Gangsta (1998), Hide Tonight (1991), You’z A Ganxsta (1998) and most importantly the biggest slogans of the time-Keep It Real and Keep It Gangsta.
Now and days, no one’s required to keep it real and so no one does, and that’s just fine for the new audience. An audience that slowly accepted rappers via Michael Jackson’s initial timid attempts to align himself with rappers, beginning with Vincent Price on Thriller (1982), Heavy D on Jam (1992) and finally ending with the most popular Gangster Rapper ever, Notorious B.I.G. on This Time Around (1995). This was the first song Michael Jackson ever cursed on, and the first time we ever heard a pop star referred to as a nigga on their own song. And if that isn’t clear enough about the pop-ability of Gangster Rap, Notorious B.I.G even returned from the dead to bless Michael’s final album. On their track, Unbreakable (2001) you can easily run the hermeneutics on their lyrics as a triumphant celebration for the King Of Pop’s alignment with the new martyr of Gangster Rap’s pop-patriarchy, Notorious B.I.G. who keeps it gangsta,
“My dreams are vivid, work hard to live it… Crack braggin’/ sick of braggin’/ how my mink draggin’/ Desert ease street sweeper inside the Beamer wagon/ I rely on Bedstuy to shut it down if I die/ Put that on my diamond bezel/ you’re messin’ with the devil. What?!” To which Michael’s chorus, as if mocking the underground heads directly, or simply speaking on behalf of all pop culture in general, “…And I know you hate it/ and you can’t take it/ You’ll never break me/ ‘cause I’m unbreakable…”
All weird conspiracy theories aside, by late 2001 the crime rate in America was down and Gangster Rap had forged an unbreakable bridge with pop audiences. It linked the gap between the nerd and the gangster, the whorehouse and the congress, the pimp and the president, the drug dealer and the senator, the underground gangster rapper and the biggest Pop icon that ever lived. Lyrically many Gangster Rappers had dragged humiliating degrading stereotypes of women, Black Americans and poor people into the 21st century but maybe that’s exactly what made it so seductive to the new global pop audience of rap music.
By the time Michael Jackson resurrected the voice of Notorious B.I.G. in 2001 for another cross over hit, it was too late for most old school Hip Hop heads to even care. The pop crowd had already moved away from any style of rap that dropped science and instead financially embraced the rap that kept it gangsta. The proof was in the sales, M.C.s like Eric B. & Rakim didn’t even chart on Billboard. These two legends are often considered soft by Gangster Rap fanatics, who don’t even call it Gangster Rap because to them, there is no other form of rap music.
More than likely, until another subversive underground music is more finacially viable than Gangster Rap we will continue to be bombarded with a barrage of crack rap, hoe rap, do more drugs rap, clap that ass rap, quick shake ya dick rap, murder ya daddy rap and even vampire/demon rap. But isn’t it interesting that although the current rap music trends and M.C.s are far more violent than they were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there is relatively no negative attention directed at them by the media nor the government?
Unfortunately, despite all the protests in the U.S., ‘isms are once again blaring in America, and for once politicians and the like, aren’t blaming music. Maybe the media and politicians have learned from their failed attempts to blame everything on Gangster Rap and Hardcore Metal, that music was never the problem harming the minds and behaviors of Americans. Perhaps they’ve finally understood that ancient parable, “Don’t kill the messenger”? Or, have they learned so much from studying the effects of Gangster Rap on Generation X, that they’ve amended the parable, “Pimp the messenger, deny the problem and get ya mutha fuckin’ money, bitch!”
As for nostalgic old school Hip Hop heads, frontin’ like we actually care what a 18 or 19 year old is mumbling to us about. Will we keep listening to our favorite Rakim album, hollerin’ at our kids and grandkids, “This is real Hip Hop right here, not that garbage y’all listenin’ to now and days?” Or will we get back in the booth, behind the boards and dig even deeper in our imaginations? Will we make something that genuinely reflects our current situation as an abandoned audience of Hip Hop Generation adults, just like we did in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s when we were repressed youth? Or, was our whole acceptability of Gangster Rap just about excessive amounts of estrogen, testosterone, denial, adrenaline, naivety and apathy? I mean, pop culture is all about the allure of youth, right?
I guess the toughest question and without a doubt the most important one is; why don’t we financially support the rap music we created as adults, like we did in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s? Honestly, do we even care about supporting or hearing from rappers over 40, 50 or 60 years old? Is that actually happening right now in the global underground? If so, is that a new revolution or the same one?
If it is the same, does that mean Gangster Rappers were expendable pawns used by the corporate patriarchy of the United States pop culture hegemony to further their homophobic, sexist, racist and classist regimes psychologically programming the masses via entertainment? That’s up to you.
One thing’s for certain, if the most popular song of this past summer is any indication of what sort of M.C. moves the crowd today, it’s clear that retired gangsters are out and retired strippers are in, as Cardi B declares, Lil’ bitch, you can’t fuck with me if you wanted to… I don’t gotta dance I make money move. There it is, we’re not even the crowd any more. Money is and perhaps it always was and will be the one main objective thus negating any attempts at that conscious rap shit. Perhaps it will always be the capitalism by any means necessary doctrine so proudly expressed by the most popular Gangster Rappers.
Public Enemy image by Atiba Jefferson